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A Response From Vandy’s Misfit Christian

Why creeds matter, despite what the university thinks.

Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest and author of Christianity Today‘s must-read essay on her campus Christian group’s dispute with Vanderbilt University, read my blog comment about it the other day, and has generously sent in this response:

…I saw that you had some questions about the policy and how/why certain Christian groups stayed on campus. I wasn’t able to go into great detail about the policy in my CT piece because the piece was really supposed to be more about my experience of that turbulent time and my identity shift that happened because of the campus conflict that year. I didn’t want to re-report the story (and I had to limit word-count so I wasn’t able to) so I didn’t get into the specifics of the policy much.

To answer your question, the issue at hand is that at the end of our probationary year (the year I described in the article) Vanderbilt made every campus group sign a pledge that they would not discriminate in their membership or leadership on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. in order to register as a student organization (the pledge is still required each year of all campus groups). My group and 14 other groups could not in good conscience sign a pledge saying that we wouldn’t discriminate on the basis of religion in selecting student leaders because we only wanted leaders that shared our basic religious beliefs to be on our core team and leading our Bible studies. The university said to us repeatedly that it was discriminatory to exclude an otherwise “good” leader just because they didn’t share our faith. If you don’t sign the pledge, the university automatically rejects your student organization application.

Many of the religious orgs that remain on campus are not specifically committed to doctrinal particularity or religious orthodoxy and are open to any kind of believer or unbeliever leading their group. Actually, when I was there (and this could have changed in the past two years), the Muslim group on campus fell into this camp (I’m not familiar enough with the nuances of Muslim theology to have the right word to describe their theological stance) and said that they would be open to Christians being on their leadership team. It was a small group. On other campuses however, Muslim groups have led the resistance to these kinds of policies and have forged partnerships with Christian groups who are working for pluralism and religious liberty on campus. Ohio State, which considered a similar policy to Vanderbilt, eventually rejected an “all-comers policy” due in large part (according to chaplains I know there) to the outcry of the Muslim community. I’ve also heard that at Harvard, Christian and Muslim groups together opposed a policy like Vanderbilt’s. Harvard rejected Vanderbilt’s policy and creedal groups are allowed on campus there.

If groups are committed to maintaining a particular theological voice, I do not understand how they can sign the non-discrimination pledge. They are, in fact, signing a pledge promising that they won’t require particular beliefs of their students in leadership. We were encouraged by many people just to sign whatever pledge we needed to and go on doing what we’d always done to select leaders–Vanderbilt doesn’t really have a way to oversee that closely. But those of us who lost our registration status felt that signing something pledging to not have doctrinal standards for student leaders — when we actually do — would be a poor model of discipleship for our students and dishonest.

Some groups don’t think the policy will pose a problem (or don’t have any formal creedal requirements) because they elect their leaders sheerly by democratic process so they feel like it is unlikely that a non-Christian would be elected anyway. But, as I have argued many, many times during this year, we aren’t so much worried about a coup where non-Christians take over the group and vote themselves into office (although that’s possible with this policy) as much as theological drift. The reason we have doctrinal boundaries in place is that we don’t want — over the course of 10 or 15 years — to slowly lose our theological particularity, which is more likely if majoritarianism alone rules the day. The analogy I use is that a creed is like a tuning fork, without it we won’t likely go out of tune immediately but give us a couple years and our theological tone will drift.

The second issue with this all-democracy/no creeds approach is that the majority of times that we face doctrinal issues with our leadership team is not unbelievers wanting to be voted into office but leadership team students having a mid-year crisis and converting or radically changing their religious beliefs. Often, with the zeal of a new convert to atheism or what have you, students want to stay in their leadership position and change the theological identity of the group. In short, we need a mechanism to ask leaders to step down if their beliefs and practices radically change. This policy made that impossible. We asked Vanderbilt’s provost directly what we should do if this were to happen (a Bible study leader decided that the resurrection is a metaphor or that Jesus was just a good, spiritual guide among many), and he suggested we disband the whole group. That’s obviously an unworkable solution. And this kind of scenario happens all the time for campus groups. All the time. Keep in mind that, for the most part, these are college students we’re talking about. They are exploring their identities and beliefs, which can change quickly. We want them to be able to do that but we also have to have a way to maintain theological stability over time as a community.

Lastly, to your other point about why we’d want to be registered groups, some deregistered groups are still meeting on campus, at this point, more or less because the chaplain is letting it happen out of kindness. But in terms of policy, we have no right to meet on campus so that could be revoked anytime (because of that most ousted groups are meeting off campus.). Ministry is made more difficult there mainly because it’s harder to meet students (we can’t go to new student fairs or advertise on campus, we aren’t listed on the religious life site online and can’t use Vanderbilt’s name) and because we can’t sponsor events on campus (For instance my group worked with the Veritas forum to try to bring respected Christian academics like John Lennox or NT Wright on campus, which we can’t do under the new policy). For some groups not being able to reserve rooms is a real problem because they have 100+ students involved so they can’t really just find a spare room. But the main thing lost wasn’t particular university privileges, but an ability to be a devotional community that is part of campus life on a pluralistic campus–we don’t just want stuff from the university, we love the university and can no longer participate fully in university life or the university community. As we say on our website to explain the main reason we want to remain on campus: We love the university. We want to be citizens of the university. That’s why we are here in the first place. We believe that religious beliefs of all sorts deserve a seat at the table of ideas, and that religious orthodoxy ought not be excluded from campus. We are grateful that we’ve been able to be part of campus life—some of us for decades—and we want to continue to be part of the dialogue, joys, and challenges of university life.

(By the way, most religious groups at Vanderbilt do not receive funding from the university so this wasn’t about money…Although the 1,400 students in deregistered groups still have to pay activities fees to the university).

Anyway, I don’t know if this clears anything up or not. I’m, of course, happy to answer any of your questions and here is an FAQ with more information that we wrote in 2012: https://intervarsityatvanderbilt.wordpress.com/faq/.

On her personal website, THW writes a post offering advice to people who have asked what they can do next about the issue? Excerpt:

Learn about the role of creeds and think well about pluralism. If I could have had 500 more words, I’d have written more about the role of creeds and more about the need for Christians to recover a language of and vision for pluralism and to lead in seeking pluralism, not just for believers but for all religious and non-religious minorities. To that end, I’d point you to this little gem, an On Being podcast where Krista Tippet discusses the role of creeds with the late Jarislav Pelikan (and they also touch on pluralism). And I would recommend this article by John D. Inazu who says much of what I’d want to say about pluralism (but does a better job than I could). I mostly want to say what he says so very well here:

Pluralism does not entail relativism. Living well in a pluralist world does not mean a never-ending openness to any possible claim. Every one of us holds deeply entrenched beliefs that others find unpersuasive, inconsistent, or downright loopy. More pointed, every one of us holds beliefs that others find morally reprehensible. Pluralism does not impose the fiction of assuming that all ideas are equally valid or morally benign. It does mean respecting people, aiming for fair discussion, and allowing for the right to differ about serious matters…

The argument for pluralism and the aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience are fully consistent with a faithful Christian witness. And in this age, they are also far likelier to resonate than arguments for religious exceptionalism. The claim of religious exceptionalism is that only believers should benefit from special protections, and often at the cost of those who don’t share their faith commitments. The claim of pluralism is that all members of society should benefit from its protections.

Great stuff. Check out more on TishHarrisonWarren.com, and follow her on Twitter.



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